I can’t quite believe that NASCAR is going green, green, green, racing this Sunday afternoon (May 17) at Darlington Raceway. After a terrible couple of months, the simple pleasure of an actual, real live NASCAR race will feel like the proverbial manna from heaven.
That we’re returning to on-track action at one of the truly iconic venues in our sport in Darlington only elevates an already mouth-watering proposition. Will it be strange with no practice sessions, no qualification and no time for the teams to even vaguely tune, let alone fine-tune before the start?
Yes, without question.
Might the first couple laps be fairly chaotic, given the relative rustiness of drivers who haven’t raced a Cup lap since March 8?
Will it be weird not to see fans in the stands?
But my bet is by somewhere around the halfway point, it will feel just like business as usual, like a “normal” NASCAR Cup Series race. Twitter will be deep in the minutiae, some fans will love the action, some vehemently won’t and the drivers will assuredly be griping about their cars on the track Too Tough To Tame. Can’t wait for that green flag to finally drop.
A quick word on the seven-race eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that bridged the gap between the real Cup races. If I’m honest, I’m a little surprised by just how much I enjoyed the iRacing, how much I craved seeing the action each weekend. The sheer dearth of new content in the sports world no doubt helped, but there was a lightness and a humor to the broadcast, ably assisted with great work from FOX, who went absolutely all in.
The fact it came together on what was basically a series of handshake deals makes it even sweeter. While other major sports scrambled and mostly failed to stay relevant these past couple months, NASCAR got a ready-made jump on the competition with over a million people watching each week – a really solid number, all things considered. Of course, the question now is will the sport have picked up new fans who turned to iRacing to fill the sporting void? Will there be folks who watch their first ever Cup race at the Lady in Black this weekend?
Let’s hope so.
Expect the unexpected
NASCAR’s 2020 season, perhaps like no other, will be one we’ll always remember. For sure, between now and a champion being crowned, there will be other changes to the schedule. Some we’ll like, some we probably won’t, but as the old adage goes, the only constant in life is change.
So why am I going down this path? Well, it’s in part mitigation against fans who will claim, likely from early on, that the 2020 champion is not worthy. That, in some way, whomever finishes atop the standings does not deserve to be the title winner due to alterations in NASCAR’s initial schedule. Of course, such critiques aren’t a new thing. We saw similar complaints about the champion in 2015, with fans saying Kyle Busch didn’t deserve to win because he’d sat out 11 full races with broken feet.
Come to think of it, there are those who still complain about the Chase format working in Jimmie Johnson’s favor. And yeah, maybe it did in the composition of tracks. But Johnson still had to go out and win it each year, which he did seven times with unerring relentlessness. So my point is really quite simple. However this year plays out, the champion will be ultimately deserving based on the way the format played out – no matter the adjustments.
A good friend of mine messaged me a few minutes after the announcement that Matt Kenseth will be taking over driving duties for the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 ride. In short, he was ecstatic that the return of his favorite driver gave him an excuse, or a reason, if you prefer, to get back to watching Cup Series racing on a regular basis.
And like my friend, I’m sure there are plenty of others who are delighted to see the return to Cup racing for the future NASCAR Hall of Famer and 2003 series champion. On the one hand, I understand the logic and the wisdom of bringing back a savvy vet who’ll quell any sponsor nerves. Kenseth, at age 48, still has something left in the tank and won as recently as his penultimate start with Joe Gibbs Racing: Phoenix Raceway in November 2017.
Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel it would have been better to see more of an up-and-comer – a nod to the future, if you will – in that seat rather than a man pushing the big five zero. Or, perhaps, CGR could have gone with a driver who’s regularly outperformed his less reliable equipment. Someone, in short, for whom you could build around for the future (Ross Chastain, anyone?)
Instead, we’ve got perhaps the most talented of backups ever. One final thought: I’d still bet Kenseth picks up that hitherto elusive 40th win at the Cup level (39 wins, 665 starts to date) at some point this summer.
Finally this week, one of the early casualties of the 2020 schedule is my home track of Sonoma Raceway. I, for one, am bitterly disappointed although I understand the machinations behind the decision.
Yes, the state’s current COVID-19 orders make a return to racing rather difficult in June. It’s just a real shame the governing body couldn’t find a way to squeeze in a trip to Northern California’s picturesque wine country at some point later in the summer. I just hope this adjustment isn’t a harbinger of things to come for future schedules and it’s merely a question of really bad timing and unfortunate circumstances for this road course.